Sociopaths miss people

Psychopaths: Regret without Consequences

People with a psychopathic character can evidently feel regret. As an experiment shows, in retrospect they definitely regret certain decisions. However, this negative emotion apparently fizzles out again very quickly - and unlike in healthy people, it hardly influences future decisions. In short, psychopaths do not seem to learn from emotional experiences.

Psychopaths are considered selfish, calculating, not very empathetic and generally cold-hearted. "They are characterized by permanent anti-social behavior and seem to feel no remorse for the negative consequences of their actions," write scientists around Arielle Baskin-Sommers from Yale University in New Haven. “It is also said that psychopathic people never look back with regret or with concern forwards.” However, part of this assumption may not be true at all, as an experiment by the psychologist and her colleagues now suggests.

Decisions on the wheel of fortune

The researchers looked at how psychopaths make decisions. To do this, they specifically recruited test subjects in a region known for its high crime rate: with the help of flyers that encouraged risky behavior such as gambling, drug abuse or the like. 62 men found in this way were then examined for psychopathic personality traits.

You should then take part in a game of chance and win as many points as possible. They had two wheels of fortune at their disposal - similar to roulette - on each of which a different number of points could be won and lost. The test subjects had to choose one of these bikes for each lap after seeing what the other bike had achieved previously. After each run, they were also asked how they felt about the results.

Regret doesn't work

Amazingly, it turned out that if players with pronounced psychopathic traits had made an unfavorable choice in one round and, for example, made losses, in retrospect they sometimes felt regret for their decision - just as often or even more often than test persons who hardly showed any psychopathic characteristics.

But there was one crucial difference: In people who were unremarkable from a psychological point of view, the researchers observed that round after round the decision was partly influenced by the strength of the previously felt regret. The negative experience seemed to have a similar effect on the next election as the actual chances of winning. This is not the case with psychopaths, however: They hardly let themselves be guided by the previously felt emotion and continued to make risky decisions even after repeated failures.

Cause in the brain?

This makes it clear to the scientists that the behavioral pattern typical of psychopaths of making decisions with virtually no consideration for losses is not based on an inability to experience negative feelings. Instead, they simply do not seem to be referring to these emotions for future decision-making.

Interesting: In order to evaluate decisions retrospectively and to learn from them, counterfactual thinking is necessary. In other words, you have to consider, for example, what would have happened if you had made a different choice. However, it is precisely in those regions of the brain that are responsible for this type of thinking that psychopaths often have structural and functional deficits.

Selective perception as an explanation

Their unnaturally pronounced selective perception could also play a role in the decision-making behavior of psychopaths, believe Baskin-Sommers and her colleagues. “In the experiment, we explicitly asked the test subjects to win as many points as possible. This could have shifted their focus so that they focused too much on the highest possible profit in the game - and overestimated their chances of winning, but paid unusually little attention to the regrets to be expected in the event of a loss, ”the researchers write.

In the future, the team wants to investigate more closely which mechanisms lead to this imbalance: "Deciphering the processes behind the striking separation between emotional experience and making decisions is important in order to improve our understanding of the cognitive and neurobiological roots of psychopathy", conclude the scientists. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2016; doi: 10.1073 / pnas.1609985113)

(PNAS, 11/30/2016 - DAL)

November 30, 2016